‘Make Mine an Original’… the Origins of Irish Coffee…
As a “liquid archaeologist” I enjoy collecting the stories and treasures of the past particularly when it involves some of my favorite adult beverages and my favorite city, “the City” of San Francisco. There are few jobs which are more fun or more interesting.
One of my favorites involves one of San Francisco’s most famous liquid monuments, the iconic Irish Coffee. The legend begins, as all legends do, with real people. In 1939 Pan Am began trans-oceanic flights to Europe. First stop - Foynes, County Limeric, Ireland. In 1942, Brendan O'Regan opened a restaurant and coffee shop in the Foynes terminal building and employed a Chef named Joe Sheridan from Castledern in County Tyrone, in the North of Ireland. It was not long, probably in1943, before Joe realized that the passengers coming to wait in the terminal ---and the wait was a long one --- in cold and rainy weather needed something to make the coffee a bit stronger to fortify them for their journey.
How it got here and what happened later are also the stuff of legend. A local journalist, Stanton Delaplane is said to have brought the recipe to the Buena Vista Café in about1950 and over the years this has become part of the tourist fabric. He shared the recipe around as he frequented all of the City’s colorful drinking emporia in search of tidbits for his popular newspaper column. By 1975 “an Irish Coffee” had become synonymous with a visit to San Francisco. Over the years the story has been embellished for many reasons.
It is a wonderful story. And I don’t doubt a bit of it. The Irish Coffee is part and parcel of The City. I even take a bit of an homage with some of my fellow judges every March during the time that the San Francisco World Spirits Competition is held. The Gold Dust, Lefty O’douls The Buena Vista, The Twin Peaks, The Kezar --- all classics and classic old school San Francisco.
But, what lies beneath and beyond the tourist legend may be even more interesting. Throughout the 19th Century – particularly from the time of the California Gold Rush – Irish whiskey was a highly prized commodity. It was the world’s leading distilled spirit and was preferred by whiskey connoisseurs because of its triple distilled smoothness. The Old Bushmills Distillery, dating from 1608, was the leading Irish Whiskey brand insane Francisco from the 1850’s clear up until 1986.
Adding a shot of whiskey to ward off the cold was not a new invention to Foynes Airport’s Joe Sheridan (who incidentally grew only sixty miles from the Old Bushmills Distillery.) The Irish, in the strongest of Celtic traditions, had been drinking their ‘hot toddies’ for centuries and began adding their whiskey to coffee probably since coffee was first introduced to them in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. "Café Irlandés" is still served in Spain. Both coffee and whiskey came to America with the earliest settlers.
Irish coffee was enjoyed in San Francisco by the original Forty-niners, sailors, fishermen and working men since San Francisco’s early days. Sometimes miners would add a pinch of gold dust for luck - Was that the luck of the Irish? As veteran San Francisco bartender Francis Kelly of the United Irish Cultural Center (He is a member of Local No 2.) puts it “All the old timers will tell you, ‘We been doin’ this for years.’ The Buena Vista just made it famous and perfected the art.”
The veterans who hangout the quintessential San Francisco landmarks like Lefty O’Douls and the Gold Dust Lounge near Union Square will tell you they’ve been doing it for years too – after all, what’s better than having an Irish Coffee at both ends of a foggy cable car ride?
Without a doubt an Irish Coffee is one of San Francisco’s greatest pleasures. Like any family recipe, there are variations and differing traditions. There are even debates about which whiskey* to use. I prefer to “make mine an original” – Old Bushmills – Ireland’s First & Original Whiskey – who can argue with 1608? All you have to do is please enjoy it responsibly.
This recipe is based on Joe Sheridan’s as handed down (courtesy of Francis Kelly.)
1 measure of good quality Irish whiskey*
1 measure strong black coffee
2 teaspoons sugar (unrefined or brown sugar gives a nice flavour)
2 teaspoons fresh very heavy whipping cream (not sweetened or whipped)
Heat the glass with boiling water so that it is good and hot. Add the whiskey, sugar and the hot coffee. Float the cream on top of the coffee. Do this by pouring the cream into a spoon rested just on the surface of the coffee. Let the cream flow into the bowl of the spoon and overflow onto the coffee. Lift the spoon as the cream builds up, so that a layer of cream builds up on top of the coffee. As it is the sugar that allows the cream to float this may not work in coffee without sugar. Do not stir - Irish coffee is best enjoyed by sipping the coffee through the cream.
* there is no documentation regarding which Irish whiskey can lay claim to being included in the earliest Irish Coffees. All at one time or another have been used.
Steve Beal is one of the world’s fifteen Masters of Whisky, and he serves on the Board of Directors of the US Bartenders Guild Master Mixologist program and was one of its founders. Steve is also a writer and chef. In April 0f 2010 he was created “Keeper of the Quaich” an honor bestowed on the elite of the Scotch Whisky industry. In 2003 he received the Spirits Ambassador to the World Award. He has been a Judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition since its inception in the year 2000 and a presenter for Bon Appetit magazine’s “Wine & Spirits Focus”. Steve has also served as contributing editor of Patterson’s California Beverage Journal, The Tasting Panel Magazine. He produced a segment weekly on the Food Guy and Marcy Show, a nationally syndicated food, wine and entertainment radio program with Guy Fieri and Marcy Smothers. He is a frequent guest on radio and television and has been seen on the Discovery Channel, Food Network, MSNBC, and CBS Market Watch and many publications. He also writes an industry column, “The Liquid Archaeologist.”©
© 2010 Liquid Archaeologist, Steve Beal